COVID-19 CASES DOWN, BUT PANDEMIC ‘NOT OVER’, SAYS EU DRUG AGENCY
Europe’s medicines watchdog said Tuesday that Covid-19 cases and death rates were falling, but warned the pandemic “is still ongoing” as it urged countries to roll out booster programmes before the winter.
Data collected over the last few weeks “showed that there has been a decrease in the overall number of cases and deaths caused by Covid-19 in Europe,” the EU agency’s head of vaccine strategy Marco Cavaleri said.
“However as autumn approaches we need to prepare for a new wave of infections in line with the trend shown by the virus in the past two years,” Cavaleri said, speaking at a European Medicines Agency press conference.
Meet three friends cycling from Tajikistan to Saudi Arabia via UAE
The EMA did not give exact figures.
US President Joe Biden, in an interview aired by CBS on Sunday, said the pandemic was over in the United States.
“The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with Covid. We’re still doing a lot of work on it… but the pandemic is over,” Biden told the CBS news programme “60 Minutes” in an interview taped as he walked the floor of the Detroit Auto Show last week.
The Amsterdam-based EMA however said it still considered the pandemic as ongoing on the continent.
“What is clear to me and what should be very clear from Dr Cavaleri’s presentation is that we in Europe still consider the pandemic as ongoing,” its chief medical officer Steffen Thirstrup told journalists in the online meeting.
“It is important that member states prepare the roll-out of the vaccines and especially the adaptive vaccines to prevent further spread of this disease in Europe,” he said.
The EMA last week approved the first vaccine — an adaptive version of Pfizer/BioNTech’s Comirnaty — to specifically target the highly infectious BA.4 and BA.5 types of the coronavirus’ Omicron variant.
The vaccine also targets “the original strain of SARS-CoV-2” and comes 11 days after the drug watchdog approved vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna against the Omicron BA.1 variant.
Some countries like Portugal and Denmark were already rolling out these vaccines, particularly to the elderly, but in other European countries people showed resistance to the idea of getting yet another Covid shot.
“We’ve seen polls in the Netherlands and Hungary pointing to a large degree of hesitancy among the general population for having these boosters,” he said.
ONLINE GAMING HAS A BIG INFLUENCE ON MENTAL HEALTH — AND NOT ALL OF IT IS NEGATIVE, CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF
: Video producer Mohammed (full name withheld on request) grew up in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia playing video games such as Crash Bandicoot, Spider-Man and Prince of Persia. When he enrolled in an engineering college in India, he was affected by its intensely competitive atmosphere and soon gave up gaming as he was too used to hearing about how it was ‘bad’. “But I continued to struggle even a year after I stopped gaming,” says Mohammed, via email. “Some of my peers introduced me to intoxicants and I began to take it to cope with the stress — that was naïve on my part.”
Around this time, he also got diagnosed with depression. “My family has a history of depression and anxiety,” explains the 27-year-old. He went for therapy till the end of college in 2017 and it helped him to cope with his mental health issues. “But in 2019, my addiction and depression got worse. I quit in 2020 but I had severe withdrawal symptoms which affected my mental health. My business venture also shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
But during the lockdown, he rediscovered his love for gaming — and it saved him. “I played games that were more focused on the storyline like Journey and The Last of Us Part II, which helped me process things better. My friends and I also used to get together very regularly and play multiplayer games like Call of Duty. This developed both my social skills and a healthy competitive spirit.”
Mohammed shifted to Dubai last year and is in a much better place now. He has a few theories on how gaming helped him to manage his mental health better — for instance, he talks about how in-game photography helped him to sharpen his own skills and that such creative pursuits kept him busy. “I also realised that when we are faced with a challenge in a video game, we are inclined to tackle it rather than be held back by a fear of failure. I still suffer from a lack of confidence due to depression, but I began to adopt the same mindset in real life as well and my life has improved significantly.” Games like The Last of Us Part II also helped him to develop more empathy in real life, and deal with problems in his personal relationships in a better way.
A few days later, we spoke to a Dubai-based Indian architect who uses the pseudonym James Mason online. “I had a pretty rough time in my teenage years due to family issues, insecurities and heartbreak,” the 24-year-old says, via Reddit chat. “I was definitely not in a good place mentally.” He is going through another bad breakup right now but this time the severe heartbreak is further compounded by work pressure and the stress of applying to colleges for further education. “I have been thinking about seeking professional help, but cost is the only reason why I haven’t done so yet,” he says.
Once again, gaming helped. “Cooperative games like Call of Duty where I need to communicate with friends have helped me to deal with anxiety. I know this may sound contradictory but sometimes I play games like Elden Ring which are difficult and challenging, but also immersive — it helps me to deal with stress. And finally, I also play slow-paced games like Minecraft — I can just turn my mind off and explore or be creative.”
Young gamers like Mohammed and James who struggle with mental health issues have sought solace in gaming and their stories stand in contrast to popular perceptions about gaming, which once used to be mostly negative in nature. With new research studies somewhat tweaking its notorious reputation, therapists have begun to explore and discover the benefits of gaming and how it can even be therapeutic for some.
For instance, in July, media outlets reported on a new study conducted by a team from the Oxford’s Internet Institute, where they surveyed nearly 40,000 gamers and, according to the University of Oxford’s website, found no ‘causal link between gaming and poor mental health — whatever sort of games are being played’.
The university’s website quoted Professor Andrew K. Przybylski, OII Senior Research Fellow, as saying, “We found it really does not matter how much gamers played [in terms of their sense of well-being]. It wasn’t the quantity of gaming, but the quality that counted… if they felt they had to play, they felt worse. If they played because they loved it, then the data did not suggest it affected their mental health. It seemed to give them a strong positive feeling,” and added that while the study is exciting, “there is a lot of work still to do.”
Using video games in therapy
Over the years, gaming studios and creators have launched video games like Depression Quest, Sea of Solitude, Elude and Actual Sunlight that were designed specifically to help gamers deal with or understand mental health issues like depression and anxiety better through their unique storylines. Other video games may help too — a 2021 article on Wired detailed how therapists have begun to use online gaming as a part of their overall treatment plans, especially with their younger patients. It also cites several studies like a 2017 study that appeared in Prevention Science which, the article says, ‘found that MindLight was as effective as a cognitive behavioural therapy programme in reducing children’s anxiety’, and a 2018 study titled Zombies vs. Anxiety: An Augmentation Study of Prescribed Video Game Play Compared to Medication in Reducing Anxiety Symptoms, which concluded that ‘clinicians should consider these non-stigmatising and low-cost CVGs (casual video games) as a feasible intervention for patients who wish not to take additional medication’.
Dr Shyam Bhat, psychiatrist and physician at Nirvikalpa: The Mind-Body Centre in Bengaluru treats patients from all over the world including the Middle East. He recommends games like Sparx as a part of the overall treatment plan to some of his adolescent and younger patients.
“In one study, Sparx was found to be equivalent to cognitive therapy for the treatment of mild depression and anxiety in adolescents. And these games are already available for free online,” he says. “Such games can teach cognitive and behavioural skills, which are useful for the prevention as well as treatment of milder forms of anxiety and depression.”
Dr K Arun Kumar, specialist psychiatrist at Aster Clinic Jubilee Medical Complex, says that video games as an aid in treatment came in the limelight only in the last few years, especially during the pandemic. “Children could relate more to video games, instead of attending long counselling sessions,” he says.
He explains that gaming helps mostly through ‘an increase in adherence to the treatment plan’ and that it helps them to feel accomplished, builds emotional resilience by helping them to accept failures better and motivates them to keep trying, teaches strategic planning and improves online communications with other players — while also pointing out that most of the research on the topic is still ongoing. “Research was done mostly on specific video games that were designed as a treatment plan — like CBT or physical activity-based,” he adds.
Safe online spaces for gamers
Fifteen-year-old Dubai-based Emarati Ahmed* (name changed to protect minor’s identity) was once pushed down the stairs at school by bullies. The reason? His ‘outdated’ laptop. He didn’t confide in his parents about this, or anything else — even the fact that he could be suffering from depression and social anxiety. “My dad will just tell me to man up,” he says. “He is quite strict and had smashed my first PC (personal computer) because I got poor grades.”
The only person he spoke to about the bullying incident was a gamer friend based in the Netherlands. “He taught me how to upgrade my old Asus G75VW. I swapped the hard drive for a new one and got an external GPU bracket and could finally game on it.” Ahmed, who spends an average of nine hours a day gaming, has 198 gamer friends online, who he describes as ‘close’. “I met them through games like Call of Duty and Counter-Strike and gaming communities on Discord and Reddit. I feel safer with them than my ‘offline’ friends.”
Such camaraderie is not unusual among gamers. There are groups like Gamers of Compassion and D2 Sanctuary on platforms like Reddit and Discord (the latter is banned in the UAE) that provide a safe space for gamers battling mental illness. “The most common thing people deal with in the group is anxiety, followed by depression. We also have a few people with autism that I know of. But that’s only what I know — most people that join the group don’t say anything and they just hang around and read,” says Blake, the US-based founder of Gamers of Compassion.
Dr Kumar explains that young gamers find solace in the anonymity of the internet, where they feel heard. “However,’ he continues, “there are chances of getting misled as these forums merely share personal experiences. It could be like the blind leading the blind, and precious time will be lost before professional help is sought.”
Pros & cons
While discussing the topic, therapists also strike a cautionary tone by pointing out that using video games for therapeutic purposes comes with limitations.
“Technology including gaming, while useful, will not be able to replicate certain essential elements of therapy like the empathic presence of a therapist, real-time communication and the sensitive responses to the unfolding of the clients’ emotions as they share their thoughts and feelings,” says Dr Bhat.
Dr Kumar adds that mental health issues need to be dealt with under expert guidance and with parents’ participation. “Video games could only be complementary and may not be the sole line of management,” he says. “All casual games may not be therapeutic. It might help as a distraction strategy but can, in fact, be counter-productive as the individual keeps avoiding the actual stress instead of dealing with it. It leads to poor coping skills and might worsen depression and anxiety. Moreover, these games provide instant gratification in a short span of time due to the dopamine surge, and uncontrolled use can lead to other issues like addiction, attention and memory problems, poor social skills, sleep and appetite disturbances.”
Gamers of Compassion’s Blake, too, believes that gaming is not a substitute for therapy. “However, I think they are a way for people to escape from the struggles that they face and to find community and friendship — and that’s not a bad thing when you’re constantly reminded of what you’re going through.”
How much is too much?
The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises ‘gaming disorder’ as a mental health condition. But what sets a fan apart from a gaming addict? Here are a few signs to look out for:
♦The inability to control gaming, such as not being able to stop
♦Prioritising gaming over other interests and activities
♦Continuing to game despite negative consequences, such as losing a job
♦Symptoms of withdrawal when unable to play video games, such as irritability or
Many young and middle-aged people today are dying of sudden heart attacks. Studies show that cardiovascular diseases (CVD) strike Indians a decade earlier compared to their Western counterparts.
Why is this happening? How can we prevent it? Are we just focused on post-heart attack rehab? Or should we be focused more on prevention?
You don’t get a heart attack because you didn’t consume pumpkin seeds or goji berries. It’s because you have a poor lifestyle. Cholesterol is not the culprit, inflammation is.
Many people believe that high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides are culprits behind their heart attacks. The main reasons behind most heart attacks is actually inflammation and oxidative damage in the heart, blood vessels, endothelial lining, arteries, and more. While maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is important, we cannot blame heart attacks on cholesterol levels alone.
What, then, can you do to keep inflammation in check and your heart strong? Adopt simple lifestyle changes.
1) Switch from cheap substandard cooking oils to cold-pressed oils
Refined oils are highly inflammatory and a threat to your heart. Using refined oils just to save some money isn’t a wise idea. Choose the right quality and quantity of oil to boost your heart health. It might cost you a few extra bucks, but remember, your health is not a cost but an investment.
2) Switch from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one
Even if you don’t engage in a full-fledged workout, just stay active. Walking and yoga are the most effective exercises. Choose fun workouts that you enjoy — dancing, aerobics, Zumba, swimming, whatever it is, but keep that body moving. People who live a sedentary lifestyle are at high risk of heart attacks. Having said that, over-working out with little or no rest or recovery period is equally harmful. So, figure out the adequate level of activity your body needs and stick to it.
3) Don’t take matters to your heart
Before renting out your heart space and mind space to a person, event or experience, ask yourself if it is worth it. While stress is inevitable, what sets a happy person apart from a stressed person is their capacity to diffuse and navigate stress and see things in a positive light. You can continue attending stress management classes and workshops, and while all of them can help you feel better for some time, the real change happens when you start changing your perspective towards life and how you relate to stress. Learn to accept and let go. Build your self-worth, create a beautiful inner world, reflect inwards, and allow these teachings to slip into your daily living.
4) Fix your sleep routine
There is nothing cool about pulling an all-nighter to work or socialise more. Your body only cares about survival. Remember, your sleep is your heart’s free drug. The chronic deprivation of sleep can increase your risk of a heart attack. Your heart is a muscle that needs recovery. Lack of sleep increases your insulin resistance and makes you more prone to Type 2 diabetes and a gamut of metabolic conditions. So, adopt a fixed sleeping schedule and sleep deep.
5) Address sleep apnea
Eighty five per cent of people with sleep apnea do not even know they have it. This causes a lot of sleep apnea to go untreated — and untreated sleep apnea is dangerous. It can lead to sudden heart attacks and strokes, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation and blood clots (pulmonary embolism). Besides using a CPAP or BiPAP machine, which is beneficial, also focus on losing belly fat, singing, chanting and engaging in regular breathing exercises.
We cannot wait for more unfortunate incidents to realise the importance of lifestyle and start prioritising it. We must wake up and work towards prevention. Many of us may go through heart disease later in life, no matter how well we exercise or eat clean. So, identify risk factors and work towards tackling them. Even if one of your risk factors is genetic predisposition and there is nothing you can do about it, you can still alter your lifestyle. Our intelligent human body was designed to fix and heal itself. The least we can do is invest in it and help it do its job effectively. Lifestyle can help you bridge this gap.